Hybrid events are the future

by | Sep 10, 2020

The Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre and one of the UK’s top five visitor attractions, occupying a prominent riverside location in London’s vibrant culture quarter on the South Bank of the Thames.

It presents great cultural experiences that bring people together by providing the space for artists to create and present their work and by creating a place where as many people as possible can come together to experience bold, unusual, and eye-opening work.

The site has an extraordinary creative and architectural history stretching back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Southbank Centre is made up of the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, and Hayward Gallery. It is also home to the National Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection. Plus, four resident orchestras and four associate orchestras.

COVID-19 forced the Southbank Centre to close in March. But six months on it is making a return with Inside Out an Autumn season of over 40 events that will bring music, literature, and comedy back to the Royal Festival Hall.

TicketCo explored the impact of COVID-19 on the Southbank Centre and the live events industry overall, in a detailed conversation with Bengi Unsal, Senior Contemporary Music Programmer at the Southbank Centre and Trustee at the Music Venues Trust. Bengi reveals a strong togetherness and resilience in the industry, the impact at grassroots level, a need to reflect and adapt, the Brexit factor, and why hybrid events will be the new normal.

Togetherness in adversity

“The impacts of COVID-19 on the live event industry have been devastating,” said Bengi as she reflected on the situation.

Bengi revealed the impact it is having on live event industry professionals and said unity is crucial to support everyone through the pandemic.

“I don’t think any of us could have ever imagined a world in which our civic spaces and shared cultural experiences could have been on pause for so long. We have seen immeasurable losses over the last six months, and I fear that we are still at the thin end of the wedge.

“We are reminded daily of the emotional and financial toll this is taking on our artists, our technicians, our producers, our crew through campaigns such as Let the Music Play and Light it in Red. These moments of togetherness have been vital in reminding us of our resilience and we’ll need these displays of unity to continue as we respond to the further challenges that the pandemic presents.”

Reflect and innovate

With the live events industry in crisis mode and seeking ways to survive and thrive, Bengi believes the time has been an opportunity to adapt and become stronger.

“The pandemic and lockdown has given the industry time to reflect and we must use this as an opportunity to reset and to think about how we can build a more inclusive and innovative sector fit for the future,” she said.

“We are going to have to be more resilient than ever as we work through how we recover. This means we are going to need to build a level of unpredictability into our future planning. And we are going to have to come to artistic programming with a whole new level of creativity and ingenuity.”

In addition to COVID-19 Bengi said the impact of the Brexit transition period will also need to be factored into forward planning.

“When considering the impact on touring and festivals in particular, another consideration will be the Brexit transition period which is due to end in December,” she said. “The concern from the live event industry may be a decreased willingness to travel internationally for both artists and audiences for some time to come.

“In my role as Trustee at Music Venues Trust, it’s been troubling to see the consequence of COVID-19 on the grassroots. Grassroots venues play a critical role in discovering and supporting emerging talent and are crucial to making sure we avoid a ‘lost generation’ of artists – it is essential that they receive the ongoing support they need to weather this storm.”

Gradual re-opening

With the live events industry seeking and deploying innovative ways to be able to deliver events and entertainment during COVID-19, we asked Bengi what the Southbank Centre has been doing to adapt.

“Since the Southbank Centre closed our doors back in March, we’ve tried to support our audiences as best we can,” said Bengi.

“We’ve facilitated remote workshops for people with dementia; we launched Art by Post nationwide for people who are isolated and living with chronic health conditions in partnership with the NASP as part of the government’s Social Prescribing agenda; we successfully re-opened the Hayward Gallery to allow audiences to see the stunning ‘Among the Trees’; and soon, our 11-acre site will become an outdoor gallery for all, for free for Everyday Heroes – a new exhibition dedicated to the nations’ key workers. These schemes have harnessed the arts’ power to boost well-being and provide a collective opportunity to reflect.”

The Southbank Centre’s Autumn season will see its Festival Hall re-open again.

“As ever, the challenges remain with live music while social distancing remains in place and it’s been so hard to see our once vibrant spaces laying so silent,” said Bengi. “However, after months of work and preparation, we are delighted to announce that we’ll be reopening the Royal Festival Hall this Autumn for Inside Out, a three-month digital festival of music, literature, and comedy from 16 September – 10 December. This series has been made possible through multiple partners including TicketCo.”

Keeping the magic

A big topic of debate has been whether the live events industry will ever return to the ‘old normal’. Bengi believe it is important to be realistic and to establish better ways of working for the future.

“I think we have to be realistic,” she said. “While there is nothing like the shared experience of a live gig or concert before a crowd of fans, there is no guarantee how soon we will be back to that model. We must find a way to keep the magic going for audiences, whilst prioritising freelance members of our communities who have already suffered immeasurably during this time.

“For that reason, I feel we now need to campaign strongly for a ‘new normal’, using this moment now to question whether the old operating models were really delivering for all audiences, all artists, and all genres.

“The post-war settlement that created the South Bank, NHS, and Arts Council centred the value that culture was essential for healing and renewal. We must keep this spirit alive as we look at new ways of working, that work better for us all.”

Cultural shift to digital

Technology has been a key part of some of the short-term measures used to help the live events industry to adapt to COVID-19, but will it be embraced for the medium and long term?

“We can’t ignore the culture shift to digital as a way of accessing art and culture,” said Bengi. “Indeed, monetised live-streaming and drive-in shows could play their part as a stopgap before full capacity live events are able to return, although the financial viability remains to be seen. Meanwhile, digital events can be a democratic way of reaching greater audiences who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access this music live.”

Digital innovations have also included the use of computer games.

“We’re also seeing interesting innovations like musicians performing in video games as virtual concerts,” said Bengi. “Travis Scott recently performed five sets on Fortnite, and 27.7 million unique players took part, creating a crowd-like experience – this could be a significant way to reach younger audiences, and industry insiders are predicted that there will be more collaboration between the music industry and gaming industry in future.

“That said, the pandemic has exposed significant existing issues with the streaming model, and there’s been talk of a review of streaming so that musicians receive a greater share of the revenue. It’s beholden on global streaming services – who’ve benefited from captive audiences during lockdown – to take the necessary measures to show comprehensive support for the cultural sector.”

Hybrid events – the new reality

“I truly believe hybrid events are the future, especially with ongoing disruption, the permanent risk of local lockdown, and travel continually reduced,” said Bengi.

“There are clear examples of these events being monetisable and economically viable, without comprising artistic integrity or production values – take Laura Marling’s Union Chapel gig or Lianne La Havas’ Roundhouse event, for example. With seemingly limitless viewer capacity online, where the content is compelling, audiences will pay. We just must insist that the artist sees the benefit directly.

“Long-term, this could also be a way of democratising live events and improving access for those who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to attend in person, either for physical or economic reasons.”

The Southbank Centre are at the forefront of experimenting with how technology can be merged with traditional methods in a sensitive way.

“At the Southbank Centre, we’re well placed to experiment with these possibilities,” said Bengi. “While we’re facing new realities, we retain our deep-rooted commitment to multiple artforms and our desire to reach out to new audiences, wherever they are, and in whatever ways are available to us. We’re looking forward to standing with the sector as we work through creative solutions that will make us all more fit for the future.”